“It’s everything you’ll never be”
The TIFF description calling Zachary Russell‘s She Stoops to Conquer a “fantastical oddity” is about as spot-on a review as you can get. What else can you say about a short film depicting a struggling performance artist who applies a latex mask—transforming her into an older gentleman in hope of laughter that doesn’t come—who comes face-to-face with the alter ego in real life? The possibilities are almost nightmarish: to see yourself in parody and wonder what sort of game is happening around you. There’s a horror film beneath such a conceit and yet Russell and co-writer Kayla Lorette (who also stars) go for rom/com instead. It’s a bold move that renders the piece even stranger, but I cannot deny its appeal for the very same reason.
We’re dropped into the world with little bearing other than knowing the initial locale is filled with young girls putting on costumes to entertain the masses. But while most don fake sideburns and moustaches to dance onstage in a drag show as men, the forlorn Lorette sits at her mirror applying a full prosthetic. The performance meets with much less enthusiasm than the others so it’s unsurprising to find her even more withdrawn afterwards, smoking alone in the alley. Something about the light and music emanating from a different underground venue draws her over, still in costume. It’s there she meets Julian Richings—a perfect doppelgänger of her professional persona. Rather than be appalled or scared, however, he engages her in a conversation of movement. They become one against the music.
The whole project is eccentric like this: both characters literal mirrors of each other who embrace the coincidence and become more self-assured in their bodies than perhaps they’ve ever been before. The relationship forged is off-putting not for the age difference, but for the idea of twins arousing each other being a disturbing sight. There’s a transference of confidence and identity between them that brings us to a finale equally exploitative as it is sweetly dignifying. Awkwardness in the morning replaces the stupor of alcohol and excitement as one self is destroyed so another can rise from the ashes. Whether the interaction was real or dreamed, the end result is a newfound success of authenticity that speaks to the audience. Only when she believes her character is authentic can those watching do the same.
Courtesy of TIFF